The historic personage known to Buddhists as ‘the Buddha’ is Gotama Sakyamuni. He was born in the middle of the sixth century BC, probably in the year 566 in India. His parents belonged to the Sakya clan, his father being a Chief. Astrologes had foretold that Gotama would either become a world-monarch or a great spiritual leader. His parents (preferring the former) took every precaution to prevent him coming into contact with any form of unhappiness, surrounding him always with those things which, to them, seemed the best that life could offer. Gotama married, had a son, and, to all appearances, led an existence suitable to a man of his rank. Then, in spite of all the precautions, he encountered an aged man, a sick man, a corpse, and a man wearing the yellow robe of a wandering mendicant (beggar). Appreciating that old age, sickness and death are the lot of mankind and that there existed persons who aspired to an existence where these did not figure, he resolved that he too would devote himself to finding the truth about life and the cause of all the suffering it entailed.
According to tradition, Gotama was twenty-nine years old when he left his father’s house, his wife and child. One night he rode out with a single attendant beyond the city, dismounted, sent his horse back, and himself took to the homeless life of the forest. For some time he studied under famous teachers of the day but always found their doctrines deficient; the best of them could offer only a temporary, self-induced state of cessation of consciousness, and many relied merely on theorising. Practising strenuous asceticisms, he became so weak that he was hardly able to stand; then, finding that these served only to dull his thought, he abandoned them. With returning health he came to see that the only means of arriving at a solution of man’s suffering lay in his own meditation. One night he took up his position under the Bodhi tree, determined to remain there until he had reached complete understanding.
The exact time of his enlightenment is debated by historians however Buddhism does not see this as important. What is important is that Gotama became enlightened and then chose to teach his path to enlightenment to others.
[Snippets of information extracted from Buddhist Ethics The Path to Nirvana by Hammalawa Saddhatissa, Wisdom Press, London (1987)].